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‘It’s a complicated thing’: Meaning of the Fourth of July in flux as fight for equal rights continues

Fireworks explode over Riverfront Park in Spokane on July 4, 2018.  (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVI)
Fireworks explode over Riverfront Park in Spokane on July 4, 2018. (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVI)

When Jamie Stacy gets together with her family Saturday on the Fourth of July, there won’t be much talk of the document that was approved on that day in 1776.

“We celebrate the freedom we have to be together as a family, because for many years, our country did not celebrate that,” said Stacy, who is Black.

It’s the kind of freedom not available to their ancestors when the Second Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence, which famously stated that “all men are created equal.”

From tracing their ancestry, the family knows that her husband’s great-great-grandmother was a slave who was sold twice in her lifetime.

“It is a conundrum,” said Stacy, a founder of the Strong Women’s Action Group and a teacher with Spokane Public Schools. “You have the benefit of living here in America, where there are laws that say you have certain freedoms.”

But along with the history of the Founding Fathers in Philadelphia 244 years ago is a history of slavery, Jim Crow laws, lynchings, segregation and race riots like the one that burned “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa in 1921.

Stacy’s children learn about the Founding Fathers’ ideals in school, but have to learn most or all of those other parts of American history at home. They learn that their family has a long history of military service, but when they returned home, there were places they couldn’t live because they were Black.

Not everyone was considered to have been created equal, it turned out, with rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The soaring language of the Declaration of Independence has always been a conundrum, and what it represented to people in the nation it helped create has meant different things to different people at different times, said Steven Fountain, a history professor and director of Native American Affairs on the Washington State University Vancouver campus.

“It was written by elite white men to other elite British men,” Fountain said.

Fourth of July wasn’t widely celebrated during the American Revolution because the country was at war and only about a third of the population strongly supported a split with Great Britain. Up through the 1790s, the leaders of the country, including George Washington, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, were Federalists who had some disagreements with the main author of the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson. They were more likely to point to the Constitution.

Plus, they were trying to improve relations with Great Britain.

“It was awkward,” Fountain said.

But as the political faction that agreed with Jefferson, the Democratic Republicans, came to power, they were more likely to point to the Declaration and its soaring language.

That language has a strange context, Fountain said. Jefferson generally believed in the ideals he wrote about, but he was a slaveholder. In his initial draft, he even included a passage about slavery, which he called “execrable commerce,” in the list of grievances against King George III.

“He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither,” Jefferson wrote in his initial draft, as Yohuru Williams notes in a recent article on History News Network.

That passage was removed, probably by delegates from Southern colonies, although at the time slavery was legal in all 13. And while the North had fewer slaves, it had many people who profited from the trans-Atlantic trade that brought them from Africa to be sold in the colonies.

Left in was language castigating the king for having “excited domestic insurrections among us.” The British were offering freedom to any slave who escaped and joined them in fighting the rebellious colonists.

Different groups of Americans celebrate the Fourth of July holiday differently, and that’s always been the case, Fountain said. Black Americans might look at Juneteenth, the day slaves in Texas learned the Civil War was over and that they were free, as Independence Day. Some Native Americans might look at events tied to their treaty as a day of celebration.

Native Americans are mentioned in the Declaration of Independence, as “the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” It’s a complaint that the British were also forging alliances with certain tribes to fight on their side in the war, but also a sign that colonists were unhappy with British limits on their ability to expand into more lands.

But it’s not the kind of language that will generate much celebration.

Kurtis Robinson, president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, said there is no one Black experience, and no one person who can speak for all Blacks in Spokane. But he said he tries to mark the Fourth of July with a recognition of the nation’s ideals as spelled out in the Declaration of Independence, while recognizing the struggle continues for many of its citizens to reach them.

“It’s a complicated thing,” Robinson said. “I love the country’s foundation and the ideals behind it.”

But coming to grips with how those ideals didn’t match the lives of many Americans required him to work to understand how that happened and “do a lot of soul searching,” he said.

One of the problems for him, Robinson believes, are things he learned and didn’t learn about American history while in public school. For example, he learned that “settlers” came West, which is the way white Americans of European ancestry likely view it.

No one suggested that to Native Americans they were “occupying, land-grabbing murderers” or that they were forcibly annexing lands settled by Hispanics and bringing with them captured Africans as a free labor force.

What he calls a “miseducation system” pushes everyone to accept the status quo, which he said he believes is most detrimental to people of color.

“Behind those great ideals in the Declaration of Independence, there’s the reality,” Robinson said. “I try to celebrate it from a place of hope. We have not gotten there yet, but God willing … there’s a potential to get there.”

The people who signed the Declaration were mainly interested in a type of freedom for themselves and others like them, said Clif Stratton, who teaches American History at Washington State University. It was freedom from the restraints the British put on them, and the freedom to settle more lands.

The citizens they imagined for their new nation were landowners like themselves, he said.

“They could conceive of no possible situation where Indians could be their equals,” Stratton said.

Not only would they not consider freedom for slaves, but they also did not allow most rights to freed Blacks.

In 1852, Frederick Douglass, a freed slave and leading orator for the cause of abolishing slavery, delivered a speech on what July 4 means to a slave. It is not a day of celebration, Douglass said, but of mourning. Had the colonies not separated from Great Britain, they would be closer to being free.

During Reconstruction, which followed the Civil War, America had a brief period in which the federal government tried to deliver on promises of freedom to former slaves. Some people consider the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s as a Second Reconstruction, because it helped secure some political rights for Blacks and other minorities, Stratton said. But it couldn’t deliver full economic rights.

It’s possible that as July Fourth approaches in 2020, America may be undergoing its Third Reconstruction, as Black Lives Matter and other movements push forward ideas for change, Stratton said.

Raymond Reyes, who heads Gonzaga University’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, said there has always been “a huge gap, as big as the Grand Canyon, between the reality and the idea” of equal rights described in the Declaration of Independence.

“America was an aspiration, it wasn’t a nation of freedom for all when it was founded,” said Reyes, who for years taught cultural diversity at GU. Over that time he has seen efforts in Spokane to bring the reality closer to the idea, but not much changes. Movements rise up, lose momentum and fizzle out, he said.

But he thinks there may be something different about this year. As the Black Lives Matter movement continues, it has “more and more white allies coming out of the woodwork,” Reyes said.

Maybe in 2020 people can see themselves more clearly, and “the good, the bad and the ugly of our history,” he said. To recognize not just the effects of white supremacy but white privilege, and what that means for inequities in health, education and housing.

It will take the three A’s, he said: awareness about what you know and don’t know; acceptance of how history has played out; and action to use what power you have to change it.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said having rights is only the first step, Reyes noted. You can have the right to sit at a lunch counter, but you have to have the education to read the menu and the economic opportunity to pay for the meal.

Fourth of July is a time to reflect not only on individual rights and freedoms but also on what’s good for everyone and on what he calls the hard part of being a community – knowing the similarities and understanding the differences. It would also be good, Reyes said, to realize the long march to the beautiful but unrealized sentiments in the Declaration “is a marathon, and we need to pace ourselves.”

For Stacy, one thing that could help speed the path on that long march to the ideals of the Declaration would be for all children to learn in school about the struggles of Black Americans, Brown Americans and other Americans of color, so that some wouldn’t have to be taught at home and others never learn them.

Stacy is a singer. In the past she has agreed to sing “The Star Spangled Banner” at events, including at the start of baseball games at Avista Stadium. She doesn’t do it any more because the author of the lyrics clearly spells out his support of slavery in the song’s third verse.

“No refuge could save, the hireling or slave / from the terror of flight or gloom of the grave.”

Not many people know the third verse, and she wasn’t asked to sing it at events. But the sentiment is clear.

Perhaps when all students are taught the full range of American history behind that sentiment, and how that kept the promises of the Declaration from some Americans, she’ll sing it again.

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